Notes on the Justice System of the Ur III State

February 24, 2015 – 8:58 am


In this period there seems to have been increasing disillusionment with operation of a system in which the institutions of the temple were held to be mainly responsible for ensuring economic security for the citizens. The cause of this is likely to have been the increasing influence of individual interests, partly as a simple consequence of the general development of the economy and partly through encouragement of those private interests by the Akkadians in the preceding period. In any case, we see that the danger of falling into poverty and slavery weighed upon the minds of the citizenry and led to such popular responses as rectifications of prices and wages and forgiveness of debts. The problem is not, of course, new to this period, as the probable antiquity of the practice previously noted[1] of proclaiming acts of “justice” or “equity” (níg-si-sá, marum) gives witness. The written collections of laws that begin to appear at this time may have been a part of the same reaction, and possibly actually a development of the níg-si-sá, since they tend to make prefatory claims to the establishment of justice in the Land and to contain schedules of appropriate prices and wages such as those earlier acts would approve. This legal reaction became very widespread very quickly, so that it is possible that every state had some such document by this time.[2]

The ‘Ur-Nammu Law Code’ is the oldest such collection known, though it is now thought to be the work of Šulgi.[3] It is not a code in our sense but a collection of particular laws which could be of only limited assistance in cases that were not specified. General principles were not given. Since the four examples of early law codes that have survived are each promulgated by a new imperial power, the purpose of these codes may have been no more than to provide a degree of harmonization amongst the law codes of the various regions that now found themselves subject to the one central power. By taking the listed cases as fixed points a provincial judge could align his judgements more nearly to the desires of the central power. On this point, we observe that the law codes of the Semites (e.g. the Amorite Hammurabi) tend to adopt the lex talionis approach, while the codes of the Sumerians (e.g. Ur-Nammu) are more consistently compensatory. This may reflect the generally harsher culture of the more recently settled nomadic Semitic tribes compared to the long-civilised Sumerians.[4]

The legal system was hierarchical and there was a process (unclear to us) by which decisions of lower level courts could be appealed to higher level courts. The lowest level of the justice system was probably a local council which we only see referenced in documents relevant to the appeals process. Above that was a level of judges who, at this time anyway, sat in panels of seven, probably in the temple courtyard or the city gate of a capital city. The specific occupation of Judge is known to exist as early as the Akkadian period,[5] and court records are known from that far back. We also see that the haz?num (mayor) decides much at the local level. Above these judges were probably the ensis and other regional governors. The ensi, of course, had been the original form of sacerdotal rulership in the early ED period and that title had then become customary in many places for the secular rulership. They had doubtless always had a role in dispensing justice, and in the imperial ages that function must have continued relatively unchanged for their respective provinces, except that they were no longer the final court of appeal.  That privilege went to the king.[6]

Apart from the judges themselves, the court also employed a barber; but more importantly there were court officials, called maškim, responsible for organizing the procedures of the courts – oaths, ordeals, punishments, etc. – and for recording what had gone on in a final summary known as a ditilla (‘completed lawsuit.’) From these records we learn that the court process was not adversarial, but rather inquisitorial: the court would try to find the truth of some disputed matter, and the means which they would use were usually, in their general nature, recognisable to us. They could take oral or written testimony from principals or interested parties or witnesses. Oaths would also be administered, to which more weight was given than is usual now. There were also, however, methods not seen in our systems: for example, if the truth about a sorcery, adultery, or homicide case remained uncertain after all other methods had been tried, then a river ordeal was considered a proper final test. In Akkadian times, the river ordeal was also used for trivial matters of debt ownership, but the increasing use of written records for such things meant that decisions could usually be reached by other means.[7]



[1] ANETP2, p. 36; 8.9.[2] Saggs, pp. 197f.
[3] Kramer:UNL
[4] Postgate, pp. 289f; Saggs, p. 200
[5] Saggs, p. 217.
[6] Postgate, p. 277.
[7] Postgate, pp. 279-282.

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  1. One Response to “Notes on the Justice System of the Ur III State”

  2. The Bibliography is:

    ANETP2: Pritchard, J. B. (ed.) (1975) The Ancient Near East: Volume 2, Princeton: PUP

    Kramer:UNL: Kramer, S. N. (1983) ‘The Ur-Nammu Law Code: who was its author?’ Orientalia. 52: 453-456

    Postgate: Postgate, J. N. (1992) Early Mesopotamia: Society and Economy at the Dawn of History, London and New York: Routledge

    Saggs: Saggs, H. W. F. (1962) The Greatness that was Babylon, London: Sidgwick & Jackson

    By SteveGW on Feb 24, 2015

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